Tuesday, April 06, 2010


I have loved uncial letters from the moment I saw them. Clear, easy to write and to read, each one beautiful in itself and nestling beautifully with each other. To me one of the great mysteries of history is how such a lovely alphabet gave way to ugly, clotted, gothic lettering, which is tedious to write and even more tedious to read: who can have thought that this was an improvement? It's like the mystery of American domestic architecture. In 1913, when my house was built, they knew how to make beautiful houses. But a generation later, they had stopped, and were building hideous things, everywhere, all the time, even though people had become much more prosperous, and could better have afforded beautiful houses. A demon of ugliness seems to have possessed the whole nation. What causes such mass lapses of taste?

I think beauty is universal, and that when one person thinks a thing is beautiful, and another thinks the same thing ugly, one of them is wrong. The tail-sting here is that people are almost never looking at the same thing. I don't know what framed the vision of the people who loved gothic lettering, but whatever it was, it made that script beautiful. Likewise, there was something that made a 1960's split-level ranch house beautiful to people, which I never learned to see, even though I was alive then. There was some context, some sequence of images, that made up for the blank spaces and awkward proportions, the bare cold corners and unframed windows. I think, as I must, that my vision is truer, but I also must bear in mind that I am missing something. It's difficult, when it's something I care this much about. I am tempted to sink into the contemptuous attitude of James Howard Kunstler. But that attitude is a deeper mistake than the mistakes it responds to: it forgets that beauty derives its power and importance from love, and not the other way around.

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